This is something I felt was necessary to write. I covered the general topic of hurricanes in "Facta Non Verba," but what's happened with Katrina is a special case that really needs to be treated separately. It's not in my usual style (if irresponsible fakery can be called a style), but it contains things that I wanted to get down on electronic paper.
Calling Down the Feds
I don't spend much of time watching tv news, and I mean every single one of them, broadcast and cable. Too much fluff, too slanted and incomplete a picture: I prefer to ferret out my own news, usually by piecing together reports by the extreme left and right side of "culture" and filling in the missing bits with the raw facts. I get a good field of view on just about any issue then.
Lately though, I have found myself more and more drawn to the tv as reports of the aftermath of Katrina filter in. They stick with me as I do my supplementary research; they add fuel to my anger whenever I uncover something unpleasant, and Katrina lifted the veil on a mountain of such things, so I've been spending more time than I like being angry, especially where the subject of the federal government is concerned.
Now, I'm not about to launch into a defense of President George W. Bush, although many of the charges I'll address have been carelessly flung at him as well. Dubyah is an elected political figure. He doesn't need my help for his defenses, and I'm not inclined to give it to him in any case. This is a defense of the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE), and just about all of the federal relief forces who, I feel, have been unfairly pulled into a fight by partisans looking to turn Katrina into a political coup. If that means I'll be defending Bush as well, then so be it. I remember Hurricane Ivan. They were there for all of us, and they don't deserve the abuse they're getting now.
I guess I'll start with the first impression I get on reading relief criticisms: I don't think very many people have any idea of what a hurricane actually is. This became apparent to me as soon as people began to describe 9/11 and Katrina as interchangeable "disasters."
Just because some talking head wants to be poetic does not make what happened on 9/11 a disaster. It was an attack, launched by a hostile enemy, aimed at specific visible targets with the intent of killing and terrorizing American citizens for the high crime of existing against the enemy's wishes. Katrina, like all hurricanes, was a random act of Nature worthy of the Old Testament God in its destructive capacity.
A hurricane is not a tornado, although it spins like one. It is not just a huge thunderstorm. When you compare the wind speeds of the worst tornados (500 mph) to those of the worst hurricanes (140-170mph), someone living in tornado alley might wonder what the big deal is. One word: Scale.
Looking at the storm from the top, you can divide it into four quadrants: Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest. When any hurricane strikes in the northern hemisphere, the one place you do not want to be is in Northeast quadrant, no matter its category, because the storm's counter-clockwise motion gives this area some particular dangers. It's the quadrant that spawns the most tornados and, because it has the forward motion and spin of the storm behind it, it will pick up 20 to 30 feet of ocean and hurl, not toss, hurl that bulk of water at land in the form of a storm surge. This is in addition to rain it has already swelled itself with from travels over warm waters. The wind, though weaker that the strongest tornados, comes in constant gusts, flattening any structures in the way or softening them up for a tornado coup.
These features are not exclusive to the one quadrant, but it is here where they are at their worst. People in the neighboring quadrants, though they might get off a little better, do not come away clean. We Americans have become used to the idea of specific destruction because of the way we make war and because of the habit of our media to focus on the one spot where they can get a concentration of stories. We are very rarely faced with, nor do our minds easily accept, the sheer scale of destruction a hurricane is capable of. When the federal relief forces move into hurricane disaster areas, they do not come in a single column, they must come in clouds to spread themselves over areas rivaling those of some European countries, and that cloud must have a logistics tail stretching back even farther. Katrina has rescuers spread out over an area the size of Britain.
This is the unique endeavor every hurricane requires us to go through. Help from the federal government cannot be quick or near instantaneous like after or tornado because hurricanes are persistent things, and can often reach as far inland as New York City before they've expended every ounce of their power. The only way to guarantee that FEMA and the like will be on the scene in full force right after the storm is to have them hunkered down with us during the storm, which is incredibly stupid thing to do. For one, predicting where the storm will exactly come ashore is impossible. This is an important point, because the eye of the storm can be over 30 miles wide and will be responsible for the most consistent swaths of destruction. More importantly, the federal forces cannot set up that nice logistics tail to bring in further relief if they need to be saved as well.
That isn't politics. That isn't racism. That's. The Way. It Is. Our form of government provides an effective countermeasure to this, one that the some talking heads and various hustlers are willing to ignore in favor of pushing a better story: The Federal Government Utterly Failed the Victims of Hurricane Katrina.
That does have a powerful ring to it though, doesn't it? Whoever employs it—and I have seen bible thumpers, race baiters, and hippies get on that wagon—is sure to get attention. I have found that most of the people throwing this around are ignorant, willfully or innocently, not only of federal government's role in providing relief but also of the basic executive powers invested in the individual states and what they are supposed to do in conjunction with federal government.
It all comes back to what a hurricane is. The one thing we can say for sure about any hurricane now or in the future is that it will not be a surprise. Not today. That is the basic assumption upon which all hurricane planning is done. Local authorities are not expected to be able to face the storm and the aftermath alone. But, because they have time to prepare, what they are expected to do is to get as many citizens possible out of harms way by having them evacuate and moving those that can't get out for one reason or another to shelters stocked with enough supplies to last until help arrives. After the storm, they are expected to play a significant role in organizing or at least communicating with relief efforts, because nobody should know their home better than they do.
The federal government, in the meantime, takes several precautionary steps. For instance, once it became definite which region Katrina would strike, President Bush declared them disaster areas to expedite the funneling of relief money. The severity of the storm was such that the president even made a call to Governor Blanco of Louisiana, urging her to pressure Ray Nagin, mayor of New Orleans, to issue a mandatory evacuation of the city in addition to the voluntary one, which he did on Sunday.
Again, I'm just laying down the facts as they are, not praising Dubyah. Both his actions and the federal relief are tied such that you must know one to understand the other.
Now, the reason President Bush did not order the evacuation of New Orleans himself is because that was outside his authority. Under our government, states reserve the right to handle their own affairs unless they ask for federal aid. Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama knew they were in for it, and took some of the usual precautions of letting FEMA and the like preposition themselves well outside the danger area of the storm. The National Guard in each state were left to the control of their respective governors.
Louisiana's National Guard unit has received special attention in the news. It's hard to see why, on reflection. The State of Louisiana retained about 60 percent of its National Guard just in case of emergencies. Furthermore, the Guard who remained behind were uniquely suited to disaster relief, since they had the bulk of the engineers and the special equipment. Though there were some engineering units from the Louisiana Guard deployed to Iraq, they numbered in the low hundreds (300-400, I think), and the extent of their specialized equipment was a handful of combat bull dozers. The rest of the LA Guard in Iraq were there to drive tanks and shoot guns, and would have functioned as MPs had they been back in the states. Their absence, however, was made up for by Louisiana's agreement with other states to lend them as many of their National Guard as were needed, an agreement that has always been in place officially amongst the Gulf States and assumed as common sense with regards to the other states in the Union.
You might ask why I spend so much time talking up a state agency when I'm trying to defend FEMA. I did this to help dispel some of the muddle around who was in charge of what when the stuff hit the fan. The National Guard deployed domestically are not federally controlled soldiers unless federalized by the president which, to my knowledge, is done only upon request from the governor or open rebellion by the governor or senior Guard officers.
And this leads to one of the sorest criticisms regarding federal relief, namely its timing. The media bears quite a bit of blame for the false perception that the federal forces basically sat around and did nothing while Katrina victims died. This was reinforced by the constant coverage of the wreckage of New Orleans, which seemed to imply that Katrina had hit it head on, when it fact Alabama and Mississippi had borne the brunt of Katrina's wrath. So, because people didn't see New Orleans covered completely in relief workers, they were left to assume that the city—which of course must have been hit directly because, Jesus, look at it—had just been left for dead while the feds sat around in untouched towns sipping tea and waiting for them all to die. FEMA was in fact very busy tending the destruction of the entire region, arriving in a timely manner to everywhere. Even to New Orleans itself. If you got a jolt from that last sentence, stay with me. It will become a seizure soon enough.
The hellhole that was New Orleans requires special attention, because the hucksters have worked the hardest on it, spinning it into a tale of a city of poor, sick, and decrepit black folk left to rot by their rich white oppressors. My first response to these accusations was a bit more…vivid than the response you'll be reading. Let's start from the beginning:
Thanks to hindsight, we now know that New Orleans was a doomed city as of the Friday before Katrina hit. At the time, it became obvious the Saturday before the storm. The city's levees were designed and constructed over the past four decades to withstand the force of a category 3 hurricane which, based on past history, were the majority of hurricanes that struck New Orleans. There were some murmurings that funding cuts on the reinforcing of some of the levees were the reason the city flooded. The Army Corps of Engineers shot that idea down pretty quick, however, when it pointed out that the levees that had failed were already up to the specified standards to withstand a category 3. Katrina, as a category 4, was just too much for them. Remember that storm surge? Once it gets over the levee, it's structurally compromised, and will always lose against the water.
Other funding cuts would have gone into a study that would have looked at the feasibility of upgrading the current levees to hold back category 4 and 5 storms. Even if these had gone through, the only thing accomplished by the time of Katrina's strike would have been, at most, the completion of the report and the lobbying for monies.
As Katrina did not hit directly, the levees were slow to collapse. In fact, immediately after the hurricane, there was the glimmering hope that New Orleans had gotten away from Nature again before the levees actually began to break on Tuesday, after Katrina was well north. Anyone that might have conceivable been available to immediately plug levees were conducting search and rescue, and could not reach the levee in time to stop the flooding of the city.
That this should be the Big Easy's fate should not have surprised anyone. New Orleans is under water and sinking, and always has been. Their nightmare scenario has always been being hit with a category 4 or 5 hurricane. They've been having this nightmare for four decades, because it keeps coming after them. Their last serious reminder was last year, at about the same time. It was when Ivan was effectively a category 4, and for a time stared long and hard at New Orleans before it blinked and walked into us instead.
Many have asked why FEMA and Bush didn't have a plan to evacuate the people of New Orleans who couldn't evacuate themselves. The simple answer is that New Orleans already had a plan worked out: It's just that, for some reason, they didn't follow it.
Remember the basic expectations of the local governments I listed earlier? You know, get everyone you could evacuated and, failing that, get them secured? For some reason, the city only managed to get half the job done on both counts. Mayor Nagin had issued mandatory evacuation, so that took care of the people with means in the city. The remaining citizenry, estimated at 100,000, were too poor, too sick, too stubborn, or too filled with criminal glee to leave on their own. The plan, detailed by the emergency handbook that is free to anyone who wants to see it, called for the remaining citizens to be evacuated or transported to "shelters of last resort," which were apparently pre-stocked with nothing to hold over their occupants until help came. The transit authority buses were used to shuttle people to the now infamous Superdome and Convention Center, but they were not used to get people out of the city. Pictures released by the Associated Press show an entire motor pool of some 205 (which I've found on the satellite overhead of the city just to make sure they were legit) school buses sitting flooded and useless. Why these were not used in conjunction with the transit authority buses to get as many people as possible out of a city whose disaster plan considered it doomed has not been explained.
Note that I am not second guessing Mayor Nagin. I am merely pointing out that the city of New Orleans did not follow through on the plan, and this goes a long way towards explaining the anarchy that greeted FEMA and other relief workers when they arrived at the city, about two and a half days after Katrina struck.
Yes, you read me right. If you'd read those tv reports carefully, you would find that their wording was that there was a "lack of visible FEMA presence" rather than a "lack of FEMA." (hence Bush's lament at a lack of results, and not a the lack of action, as it's commonly blathered). What FEMA found was a city suffering on a larger scale than it should have, stuffed to the brim with far more people than they had the ability to supply. The New Orleans police were overwhelmed by the criminal element at this point, and efforts by FEMA and every other aid agency to beef up its presence to deal with the new crisis were crimped by the wreaked infrastructure and wreaked minds of the honest to God looters, who had been heavy contributors to the city's abysmal murder rate in drier times. There was also the lack of effective communication between the local disaster coordinators and all the relief agencies. The federal authorities were not even made aware of the situation at the Superdome until they had seen it on tv. That's the kind of information they needed going in, but didn't get. And there was a whole flooded city full of nasty surprises like that, which could take up an entire book by themselves.
The official deliver of aid is counted by the media as day 4, when the National Guard convoy made it to the Superdome in front of all the cameras. But FEMA and the rest of the feds were not leaving people to die. They did right by us when Ivan came around, and they did and are continuing to do all they can with the entire area stormed by Katrina. If they are guilty of anything, it's desperately trying to save as many people as possible from a disgusting situation. For people in positions of public significance to suggest that those agencies are doing anything other than the best they know how to do just because New Orleans is a predominantly black, democratic city is vile.
Harp on President George W. Bush if you must; he signed up to be a piñata. But give the federal relief forces the respect they deserve.